I had originally planned on a different topic for my second post. This week, however, my mom decided that she and I were going to attend a free lecture, hosted by the Boulder REI, discussing the first two female through-hikers ever to complete the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). In typical style (my mom and I arrive late to everything), we rolled in ten minutes after the lecture started, having driven from South Denver to Boulder in rush hour traffic. As we sat down, flustered and discombobulated, I realized that this wasn’t just an overview of the first female through-hike of the CDT — one of the two women who completed that hike in 1978, Jeannie Smith (now Jean Ella), was actually delivering the presentation. While she talked about the details her 1978 trek with Lynn*, Jean also discussed what the hike meant to her, and what she learned from the experience. Driving home after the lecture that evening, I felt compelled to delay my original concept for this post in order to write about these awesome women and their incredible accomplishment.

The Continental Divide Trail

Congress designated the Continental Divide Trail as a National Scenic Trail in November 1978. The trail runs roughly 3,100 miles along the Continental Divide from the Mexican border to Canadian border, and spans the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. On its website, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC) estimates that “as of December 2015, 85 % of the [CDT] is completed.” The trail crosses multiple mountain ranges, and the CDTC notes that “much of the Trail is above 8,000 feet in elevation” with “the highest point in Colorado at 14,270 feet.” Wikipedia reports that, currently, “about two hundred people a year attempt to hike the entire [CDT], taking about six months to complete it.”

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When Jean Smith and Lynn hiked the CDT in 1978, they were the sole two hikers who completed the trail. Although they began with a group of four women, the other two women eventually had to leave the trail for various reasons (although one of these women went on to bike across the United States, and so, despite not completing the CDT that year, she clearly didn’t lack for personal accomplishment). Jean described not seeing any other hikers until late July in Colorado (roughly four months into their trip), at which point she said she and Lynn frightened the other hikers with their enthusiastic greeting. A 1976 Trail Study Report of the CDT noted the trail was 3,102 miles long, qualifying only 598 of the total mileage as ‘suitable trail’ (citing from Jean’s presentation on 3/8/17). Thus, roughly 81% of the CDT was deemed ‘unsuitable for hiking’ (Id.). This means that a big percentage of an over 3,000 mile journey was, essentially, bushwhacking or freelancing. In addition to that challenge, Jean noted that no guidebooks for the trail existed, except for the Montana section of the trail, and that trail signage only marked about 20% of the trail. The women had to use a hand-drawn route that they acquired from a friend, and copied topographic maps from the University of Oregon library. Jean noted that, because they had to make copies of these maps, their maps were in grayscale – therefore making it difficult to differentiate between topographic lines, rivers, roads, and other landmarks on the maps. Because their hike predated the advent of GPS technology, the two women navigated using maps, which included their grayscale topographic maps as well as U.S. Forest Service maps, and a compass. They used a cloud chart to predict weather systems, and had signal mirrors in their packs in case of emergency (Jean noted this final safety detail with a hint of self-deprecation).

The women sought out and eventually obtained sponsorships from most of the main companies in the outdoor sports industry at the time, including the North Face and National Geographic. These sponsors provided them with gear, food, and, in the case of National Geographic, with film and film development services in exchange for the right to use the women’s photos from their hike. National Geographic was developing a story on the CDT at the time, and wanted to feature Jean and Lynn in their article.

The Hikers

Our heroines, Jean and Lynn, met while hiking during the 1970’s. At the time, Jean planned on attempting to hike the Continental Divide Trail, and because the two women instantly connected, a few hours after they met, Jean invited Lynn to join her CDT team. Both women were photographers, although Lynn had more technical training, while Jean gained much of her photography experience while hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1976. Neither woman had ever backpacked for more than five consecutive days at a time, but Jean described their mindset in preparation for the CDT as conceptualizing the hike in terms of a long string of five-day backpacking trips all linked together. She said that they really tried address the trek in small pieces, setting manageable goals in order to prevent them from getting overwhelmed by the enormity of their task. In response to a question about her mental preparation for the CDT, Jean said, “not taking myself too seriously… I just wanted to be there.” Jean described how planning the logistics for the trip took every spare moment of her time, such that she didn’t really get a chance to reflect on the scale of her undertaking until the night before she hit the trail. Both she and Lynn planned the trip while working, and could not put their responsibilities on hold in order to hash out the trip details. Jean described her motivation for taking on the CDT as a desire to just spend time in the outdoors, and that navigating the CDT, or other trails, was the only means of accessing those types of experiences at the time.

Jean grew up in a tiny, isolated town in Texas. She lived with her single mother, brother, and grandfather. She and her friends grew up spending all day riding bikes out into the countryside, drinking from cattle watering troughs, and exploring, while their parents knew little more about their activities than, “we’re going out for a bike ride!” Jean was a Girl Scout, and her mother was a Girl Scout leader. Jean describes her mother as highly supportive of her goal to complete the CDT, and her love of the outdoors in general. Jean eventually moved to Oregon to attend school, studying exercise physiology, where friends introduced her to backpacking and mountaineering. Her background in exercise physiology proved to be integral to their completion of the CDT in 1978 because Jean understood the value of rest in terms of muscle development, and understood that they would need to gradually work up to their goal of 15 miles per day.

Before the CDT, Lynn had been married for seven years and then divorced, attended and graduated from college, and worked for a year. Unlike Jean, who had completed the PCT in 1976, Lynn had never done a long distance hiking trip before the CDT (what an introduction to long distance hiking!). Jean described Lynn’s family as somewhat worried about their decision to hike the CDT. In a documentary about their trek (see link below), Lynn states that she wanted women to challenge the ideas that women aren’t “strong or self-reliant,” and that she “wanted women to go for it.”

The Historic 1978 Continental Divide Trek

Jean and Lynn began their hike in March of 1978. Hiking through the deserts of New Mexico, their primary water sources were cattle watering troughs, and so these troughs became key landmarks as they determined their route across the desert each day. They would use the angle of their shadows on the ground as a navigation tool in order to get from one trough to the next (this piece of the lecture mystified me, so I apologize for my vague description here). The New Mexico section of the CDT passed through the Navajo Nation reservation lands, and on a resupply in the town just before entering this segment of the trail, Jean and Lynn received warnings from ranchers that hiking through the reservation would be too dangerous for two white women, and that the Navajo people might try to hurt them. Jean described how, from these conversations, she got a sense of the racial tensions that existed between the white, Latino, and Navajo people of the region. Despite these warnings, Lynn and Jean had no trouble as they passed through the Navajo Nation’s lands, and, in fact, Jean describes the Navajo people as some of the most welcoming and generous people that the women encountered along their trek. She said that they often would share valuable water with Jean and Lynn, water that some of the Navajo people had to walk miles in order to collect.

As they entered the mountains in Colorado, the two hikers quickly encountered blizzard conditions, hiking through six feet of snow that had accumulated over a few days. Jean and Lynn continued to hike despite the conditions, and eventually one of their sponsors sent mountaineering skis so that they might finish the Colorado section of the trail. Jean described making it through about one hundred miles of trail in snowy Colorado before deciding to leave the trail due to high avalanche danger. The two hikers made it out of the backcountry safely, but Jean’s toes had gotten severe frost nip from the freezing temperatures. After resting and allowing Jean’s feet to heal, they decided to head on to Wyoming and then double back to complete the Colorado section later in the summer.

Wyoming also had snow, however. When they reached the Wind River Wilderness, they found the ground completely covered with snow. In talking to a few people before entering the Wilderness, Jean and Lynn learned that no one had traversed the Wind Rivers yet that season because of the snow. Some people, however, suggested that crossing could be possible, so long as Jean and Lynn hiked at night when the snow was hard enough to carry weight. So they headed into the Wind Rivers with 70-pound packs (yes that is seven-zero!). Jean said that they would hike each “day” for sixteen hours, starting at midnight and using the North Star as a directional bearing in order to navigate through the night. This segment of their hike took them 12 days to complete. In Yellowstone National Park, the winter’s record snows had started to melt, making for many high, dangerous river crossings. After finishing the Wyoming section of the CDT, Jean and Lynn returned to hike through Colorado. There they finally experienced some good weather, and even met a few hikers along the trail. At this point in their trek, Jean and Lynn were averaging about fifteen miles per day.

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In Montana, Jean remembered that many of the weather reports called for an early and severe winter. Jean and Lynn, however, encountered spectacular weather during mid-September (and their pictures from Glacier National Park and the surrounding area are beautiful). They had to take extra precautions in much of Montana to protect themselves from grizzly bears, playing harmonica and yodeling while hiking, sleeping in locations separate from where they ate meals, and changing clothes between eating dinner and heading to bed for the night. They completed their CDT trek in October of 1978, after spending almost seven months as the sole hikers on the trail.

To me, one of their most impressive accomplishments, among the myriad of incredible feats, is the fact that Jean and Lynn basically had to determine their own route for most of their trek. Most of the long through-hike trails in the U.S. now have volunteer trail maintenance crews, regular signage, multiple guidebooks and corresponding maps, GPS apps for phones, and also the presence of many other hikers who are ready and willing to provide directional advice. Jean and Lynn for all intents and purposes didn’t have any of those luxuries on their hike. And on top of the lack of today’s distinctly marked trails, they had to navigate through snow, which likely complicated their ability to route find. One of the lecture attendees asked if Jean and Lynn had ever gotten lost during their CDT hike, and Jean responded, “Oh, all the time!” She described how much of their navigation was uncertain – they often had to backtrack or walk some distance to even locate the beginning of a possible route. Jean provided her audience with a tip helpful in the case of getting lost, saying, “If you ever are lost, sit down and eat something.”

This is a short video documenting their journey (below), produced and posted to YouTube by Jean (User Name: jeanella2) in October 2015.

The documentary was originally created in 1978 in the Oregon University Educational Media Lab.

Post-Lecture Reflections

Of all of Jean’s qualities, the ones that stood out to me the most were her humility and intense positivity. Despite the enormity of her accomplishments, Jean refused to take herself too seriously and never took on an air of self-congratulation. She described her experience on the CDT as one that allowed her to “rethink her life,” and to create a life of adventure for herself and others. She went on to create an organization called Wild Women Adventures, which aimed to provide women, children, and those who could not afford to personally finance outdoor activities, with an opportunity to experience rafting, mountaineering, climbing, backpacking, and numerous other outdoor sports. Jean discussed how the CDT helped her to realize “the potential of women mentoring women,” an idea that struck a chord with me, as I have sometimes felt that my experiences participating in outdoor activities have lacked this female camaraderie (see my previous post, Why “Pretty Good for a Girl”). Talking with Jean and all of her friends after the lecture, each of them touched on this theme of female support and encouragement, citing the women who had helped them learn how to white water raft or ice climb, and highlighting the general spirit of positivity and teamwork that they had encountered as they each entered into the outdoor recreation community. I asked some of these women if they had ever felt intimidated trying some of these new sports, or whether they had felt the type of competition that I have sometimes experienced while skiing and backpacking, but they said that they typically tried to surround themselves with people who were interested in bringing each other up, rather than competing for a spot at the top. Many talked about how Jean modeled this type of supportive and humble behavior for them. It amazed me how these highly accomplished female athletes were willing to take the time to chat with my mother and me, that they were curious to hear about our experiences, and that they took us seriously as female athletes despite our not having accomplished anything near the intensity or importance of their own outdoor feats.

In terms of her positivity, I think Jean is unrivaled. She described how her mental goal for the CDT trek was to try and maintain a spirit of euphoria and gratefulness regardless of the weather that they encountered or her physical condition. She discussed how she really wanted to hike the CDT because she simply wanted to be out in a wild space for an extended period of time. Even when describing situations that I would find unbearable (hiking in six feet of snow for any period of time, let alone for nine days straight), she never took on a tone of frustration or disappointment. Fear also didn’t seem to have a place in Jean’s mind. When asked by one of the audience members whether she and Lynn had any really frightening experiences on their trek, Jean had difficulty coming up with an answer. I felt that, if I were delivering the lecture, I could have listed many ‘frightening’ events – dangerous river crossings, hiking through the night on completely snow covered ground, getting accustomed to the feeling of being lost, backpacking in bear country, etc. In the end, Jean listed a few creepy hitchhiking experiences that she had after she finished the CDT while hitchhiking alone to Oregon, where she would go on to complete the Pacific Northwest Trail with a friend. Her friends emphasized Jean’s lack of fear, talking about how one could infer that some events must have been scary for Jean and Lynn while hiking, such as a time that the two hikers accidentally slept in a cave that doubled as a coyote den, because they needed to find a space to camp that was out of view from other people, but noting that Jean never talks about these events in terms of fear. As someone who often struggles to maintain a positive attitude when things don’t go according to plan, I really admired Jean’s positivity and openness to challenge.

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My sister, Eva, and I hiked a tiny portion of the CDT in the summer of 2015, when we completed half of the Colorado Trail together. Our experience on the trail cannot in any way compare to Jean’s and Lynn’s CDT trek in 1978. We had mostly good weather, met many other hikers, had the help of guidebooks, and had a well-maintained trail to follow, supports all of which Jean and Lynn did not have when they hiked the CDT, and still this hike was a huge challenge for Eva and me. The physical and mental demands of hiking an average of 15 miles per day were new to us, as was the experience of spending more than five days out on trail. I remember one day where we had hiked about 15 miles in mountains above 12,000 feet in elevation, and as we were trying to find a spot to camp for the night, Eva sat down and said, crying, “I’m just so tired,” (a sentiment that reflected my feelings that day exactly). The challenges that we faced even on such a comparatively short trip put Jean’s and Lynn’s accomplishments in perspective for me. I feel sheepish comparing my pride in our little Colorado Trail hike to Jean’s humility in discussing her historic trek of the CDT. Jean’s humble demeanor made a huge impression on me, and her encouragement of other people in their attempts to participate in outdoor recreation activities inspired me and made me feel hopeful.

Jean and Lynn blazed the trail, both literally and figuratively; their accomplishment is an example of female excellence that both teaches and inspires. Their CDT trek in 1978 was one of many other such examples that opened doors for women, helping women to gain recognition as equals not just in the outdoor community, but in society as a whole. While markedly less famous, my mother is one of those women who helped to pave the way for future generations of successful women. She was a collegiate ski racer, volleyball player, and an All-American soccer player, and was eventually inducted into Colorado College’s Sports Hall of Fame. My mom never let unequal treatment stop her from pursuing the sports that she loved, and she has continued to encourage female athletes in various contexts. I see my mother as a trail blazer in her own right, and admire her courage in the face of resistance from others. I am thankful for these women whose efforts have not only helped to provide women in my generation with opportunities to participate in sports, but have helped reaffirm to us that we are intelligent, capable, and valuable members of society.

As a parting shot, here is a photo of your valiant author and her sister, Eva, clearly playing it cool while hiking along a teensy part of the Continental Divide Trail in 2015.

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If you are looking for more information on the Continental Divide Trail in general, check out the Continental Divide Trail Coalition’s (CDTC) website. There you can find trip planning information, a history of the CDT, trail descriptions and information broken down by state, volunteer opportunities, and more. Plus, the CDTC’s website has a ton of pretty pictures!

Citations and Acknowledgements

This post heavily relies on information provided by Jean Ella at the “First Female Hike of the Continental Divide Trail” lecture, hosted by the Boulder REI and Continental Divide Trail Coalition on March 8, 2017.

*Jean gave me verbal permission to write about her CDT trek, allowing me to use her first and last name within the text, but asking that I not included Lynn’s last name, as she was unable to grant permission at that time. 

The Continental Divide Trail Coalition. “Backcountry Basics – CDT Facts, Challenges and Risks, and Traveling Over Snow.” Web. Accessed March 12, 2017. http://continentaldividetrail.org/trip-planning/

Ella, Jean (jeanella2), Documentary of the First Women to Hike the Continental Divide Trail. October 16, 2015. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNDlE7NoSF8

Ella, Jean (jeanella2), Keynote and Documentary of the First Women to Hike the Continental Divide Trail. January 30, 2016. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1Wj-eZ9btU

Wikipedia, “The Continental Divide Trail”. Web. Accessed March 12, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continental_Divide_Trail

I would like to thank Jean Ella for traveling from Oregon to Colorado in order to tell us about her story, and for allowing me to write about the experiences that she discussed in her lecture. 

I would also like to thank Teresa Martinez of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition for organizing this wonderful event, and for all of her work with the CDTC.

4 thoughts on “Blazing the Trail – Literally: The Story of the First Female Hikers to Complete the Continental Divide Trail

  1. What an awesome story, WOW. I wish I could have attended that lecture with you. It sounds so inspiring and motivating! Thanks for researching and sharing this amazing story with us! Excited to see what you write about next 🙂 It would actually be really interesting to hear more about your own experience on the trail and on extended backpacking trips! I think of YOU as an impressive and inspiring lady 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Anastasia! I have to say that the presentation was super thorough, which mitigated the amount of research that I had to do for the post. Yeah I think their story is so amazing/inspiring, too! Thank you so much for the support (:

      Like

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